I grew up taking our family’s lawn for granted. Later, when I became responsible for cutting the grass, I found myself wondering about our culture and its great love of the pure grass lawn, because it became clear that grass is without any practical function. Unless we are grazing four-legged, grass-eating animals in our yards, there is no earthly use for grass. The American Lawn exists as proof that people within a culture will do illogical things simply because that is customary and appropriate within that society.
There is an anonymously written conversation between God and St. Francis that I have seen several times through the years. I found a version of it on www.peakoil.org, where you can read the whole conversation if you like. The beginning of it goes like this:
“GOD: St. Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the World is going on down there in the USA? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honeybees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.
“ST. FRANCIS: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers weeds and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.
“GOD: Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?
“ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.
“GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.
“ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.
“GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?
“ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.
“GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?
“ST. FRANCIS: No, sir — just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.”
I target this particular dysfunctional crotchet of the American psyche because I want to discuss the work and ideas of Fritz Haeg. He has written a book, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn (New York, Metropolis Books, c2008), which takes on the Great American Lawn. His proposal is radical but simple: exchange the green rectangles for gardens, which he calls edible landscapes.
Years ago, a friend of mine married well and moved into the archetypal “house on the hill’ about which Hank Williams sang so mournfully. She promptly planted a big kitchen garden smack dab in the middle of the front-lawn vista. Neighbors were up in arms, but she was breaking no civic ordnance. To the many complaints, she calmly responded that this was where her plants would get full sun. So this act of radical thinking can be done.
Why, exactly, should it be done?
Practically speaking, a garden needs no further reason for being than that it feeds the family who is growing it. At one strike, a family can have organic food grown from local seeds, and can do so at very little financial cost.
Further, having a garden instead of a lawn means that we will not be using harsh, toxic lawn chemicals. We will be weeding by hand instead. We will not use lawnmowers, machines which add to the already high levels of ozone present in the summer. And we will not be paying for food which is typically hauled from the west coast many hundreds or thousands of miles by truck. We will be shrinking our “carbon footprint”.
Socially speaking, a garden in the front yard – the public part of our property – can change the whole tone of a neighborhood. Here is Haeg, writing in Edible Estates:
“Edible Estate gardens are meant to serve as provocations on the street. What happens when we share a street with one of these gardens? The front-yard gardeners become street performers for us. Coming out the door to tend their crops they enact a daily ritual for the neighbors. We get to know them better than those who have lawns. We talk to them about how their crops are doing. They often can’t eat everything they are growing, so they offer us the latest harvest of tomatoes or zucchini. We go out of our way to walk past the garden to see what is going on. Just the act of watching a garden grow can have a profound effect. When we observe seeds sprout, plants mature, and fruit produced, we can’t help but be drawn in. We become witnesses, and are now complicit and a part of the story.”
In the same volume, he says,
“Today’s towns and cities are engineered for isolation, and growing food in your front yard becomes a way to subvert this tendency. The front lawn, a highly visible slice of private property, also has the capacity to be public. If we want to reintroduce a vital public realm into our communities, those with land and homes may ask what part of their private domain has public potential.”
It is easy to deplore the tendency of Americans to live a couch-potato existence. Here is a way to counter that tendency. Just as a dog must be walked, and therefore the master gets exercise, so a garden must be weeded, staked and watered in dry weather. A garden calls for soft summer evenings spent not in front of a view-screen but out in the yard, surrounded by the first fireflies slowly rising up into the trees, with the family’s hands in the soil. A garden is a call to reconnect with Mother Earth. Haeg says,
“It is easy to romanticize gardening and food production when your life does not depend on what you are able to grow. An Edible Estate can be a lot of work! A lower-maintenance garden might be full of fruit trees and perennials well suited to your climate, but a more ambitious front yard might be full of annual vegetables and herbs that are rotated every season. Either way it demands a certain amount of dedication and time. Do we have enough time to grow our own food? Perhaps a better question is, “How do we want to spend the little time that we do have?”
“How about being outside with our family and friends, in touch with our neighbors, while watching with satisfaction as the plants we are tending begin to produce the healthiest local food to be found? It may be harder to defend the time we spend sitting in our cars or watching television.”
Fritz Haeg is presently involved in planting an Edible Estate garden at a settlement house called The Hudson Guild. Founded in 1895, the Hudson Guild offers programs for people of all ages in the Chelsea neighborhood, from child care to nutritional and recreational services for adults to an art gallery to summer concerts to mental health services. The Hudson Guild is part of the large complex of public housing called the Chelsea Elliott House. And now, on the triangle of lawn at their entry at the corner of 26th Street and Tenth Avenue, a garden is being made.
This is the sixth prototype of an edible estate garden which Fritz Haeg has planted. The first four are in urban areas of Salina, Kansas, Lakewood, California, Maplewood, New Jersey, London, England, Austin, Texas and Baltimore, Maryland. Haeg’s book documents the creation of the first four edible estate gardens.
Ovation, a television channel seen on satellite and cable stations, is documenting the making of this garden, and these documentaries will be seen in a series this September. Such efforts require sponsors, and Gardenburger, Inc., makers of an organic line of vegetable patties made to be served like hamburgers, but containing no meat, is teaming with Ovation to present these programs. Their web site says,
“Ovation TV, the only television channel dedicated to the arts and contemporary culture, and Gardenburger®, makers of the original “veggie burger,” are sponsoring “Seeds of Inspiration: Gardenburger at The Hudson Guild,” an edible, urban garden by Fritz Haeg, artist and author of Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn.
Their goals in making the garden there include a drive to plant “crops and natural vegetation that were growing on Manhattan 400 years ago, when the native Lenape people lived on the island – foods that will now benefit the Chelsea Guild in their efforts to educate and provide for children in their community.”
This suggestion to reclaim a more intimate relationship between our food and us seems to me to capture the essence of living the Law of One. If we buy our food at the supermarket, we do not connect with it in at all the same way as we do if we have planted it, weeded it and watered it while watching it grow from seed to food. When we eat a zucchini to which we have talked as we tended the vine, we do not have to imagine the relationship between it and us. That zucchini is our baby. As we add herbs to the stir-fry or casserole dish, we love the food, and it loves us. We have brought the dance of nature and sustenance to a place within our homes and within our auras.
I open my arms and embrace your spirit! Let us join in the dance of nature! Let us enter into a dialogue with the devas of our plantings and the nature spirits of our region and become one with that physicality which is a worthy part of our natures. If we are what we eat, then let us eat food we have loved and nurtured, and let it love and nurture us.